Sources of Law
There are four main sources of law in Singapore: the Constitution, legislation, subsidiary legislation, and judge-made law.
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It mandates that any law enacted by the legislature contrary to the Constitution shall, to the extent of its inconsistency, be void. It also takes precedence over judge-made law.
The provisions of the Constitution can only be amended by Parliament. It requires the votes of at least two-thirds of the total number of elected Members of Parliament, excluding nominated Members of Parliament. However, some articles within the Constitution require a national referendum and the support of at least two-thirds of the total number of registered voters. Such articles include Art 6 of the Constitution, which prohibits surrendering Singapore’s sovereignty or relinquishing control over the Police Force or Armed Forces except by referendum.
Part IV of the Constitution contains certain fundamental liberties, such as the liberty of the person, equal protection of citizens, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. These rights, which are held by individuals, are not absolute rights. They are qualified by public interests such as the maintenance of public order, morality, and national security. If an individual’s Constitutional rights are infringed by a law or by the actions of a public body, he or she may bring the matter before the court for judicial review of that law or action. The courts have indicated that they are willing to give such fundamental rights a “generous interpretation”, although they must be balanced against the presumption that the authorities act regularly and in compliance with the law.
The courts have also held that there are certain “basic features” within the Constitution which cannot be derogated from. Such features include the rule of law, the principle of separation of powers between the legislature, executive, and judiciary, and citizens’ right to vote.
Besides the rights of individuals, the Constitution also sets out the powers, duties, and functions of various organs of the State, including the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. The Constitution also sets out special powers against subversion which can be used when a State of Emergency has been declared.
These are written laws made by Parliament which have the force of law in Singapore. They take precedence over subsidiary legislation and judge-made law.
The law-making process begins with a Bill, which can be drafted by the Government’s legal officers, or can be proposed by a Member of Parliament. Most Bills are introduced through the former process. The latter is rare. These Bills pass through three readings in Parliament. During the parliamentary debates on certain Bills, the relevant Ministers often make speeches defending the Bill and answer questions put forth by other Members of Parliament. Parliament may, in some cases, decide to refer the Bill to a Select Committee to deliberate on and submit a report to Parliament. Once the proposed amendments introduced in either the Select Committee Report or during the parliamentary debates are accepted by a majority of votes in Parliament, it is then passed.
The Bills are also scrutinised by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, established under the Constitution. The Council must draw attention to any Bill which is likely to be disadvantageous to persons of any racial or religious community and not equally disadvantageous to persons of other such communities. The Council does so for all Bills except Money Bills, Bills certified by the Prime Minister to affect the defence or security of Singapore or one that relates to Singapore’s public safety, peace, or good order, and Bills which are certified by the Prime Minister to be so urgent that it is not in the public interest to delay its enactment.
The President must also assent to the passing of the Bill. But the President generally exercises his function of assenting to Bills in accordance with Cabinet’s advice and does not act in his personal discretion. Exceptions to this are Bills seeking to amend the Constitution to affect the President’s powers, Bills that vary the powers of the Central Provident Fund Board to invest moneys belonging to the Central Provident Fund, Bills drawing on the reserves of the Government not accumulated by it during its current term of office. If the President feels that such Bills curtail his powers, he may refer the Bill to a Constitutional Tribunal. If the Tribunal is of the opinion that the Bill does not have this effect, the President is deemed to have assented; if it does and the President withholds his assent, the Prime Minister may direct the Bill to be submitted to a national referendum. Such a Bill requires at least two-third of the total number of votes cast to be passed.
Once passed, each Act of Parliament is given a specific chapter number. These Acts of Parliament may be accessed online, free of charge, at https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Index. This site is maintained by the Attorney-General’s Chambers of Singapore.
Statutes are to be interpreted purposively. In the interpretation of statutes, an interpretation that promotes the purpose or object underlying the written law shall be preferred over an interpretation that does not do so. In giving effect to the purpose of a statute, the courts may refer to certain materials which shed light on the drafting process of the legislation, including parliamentary debates and the Explanatory Statement to a Bill. The courts have held that they can give effect to a statute’s purpose in interpreting a provision within the statute even if that provision is not ambiguous or inconsistent.
Subsidiary legislation are last in the hierarchy of written laws. They are enacted under a single legislation. Their function is to fill in the administrative and operational details not covered by the parent statute itself. Given that they are derived from the parent statute, it follows that subsidiary legislation cannot exceed the boundaries prescribed in the parent statute.
Subsidiary legislation can be brought into force and amended far quicker than legislation. They do not have to be brought before Parliament and can be brought into force or amended by Ministers (or the relevant authority specified in the primary legislation). But subsidiary legislation must still be submitted to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights for the same scrutiny described above.
As a common law system, courts in Singapore can develop judge-made, unwritten law.
Courts will develop judge-made law incrementally and in accordance with the doctrine of stare decisis. This doctrine provides that a higher court’s decision binds a lower court. In Singapore, the highest court is the Court of Appeal, followed by the High Court, and then the State Courts. Appeals to the Privy Council were formally abolished in 1994.
Courts are not bound by but normally follow their own previous decisions. So a decision of the High Court does not bind another High Court, nor does the decision of a Court of Appeal bind a subsequent Court of Appeal. This is unlike English law, where the decision of a Court of Appeal binds subsequent Courts of Appeal unless certain exceptions apply.
The doctrine of stare decisis only applies in respect of the ratio decidendi of a case, ie, the part of the case that is directly relevant in how the case is decided. Judges’ views in passing not directly related to the issue at hand (termed obiter dicta) are not binding.
While Singapore judicial decisions is most often cited before the Singapore courts, decisions of other courts are also referred to at times. English judicial decisions are most frequently cited, especially where they relate to issues of interpretation of English statutes which were adopted or followed by Singapore.
It is important that Singapore judicial decisions can be accessed by judges, lawyers, and the public. The Singapore Law Reports constitute the major publication of Singapore judicial decisions since 1992, which have been republished as the Singapore Law Reports (Reissue). Before the Singapore Law Reports, the Malayan Law Journal published Singapore judicial decisions beginning in 1932. Recent judgments of the Supreme Court and State Courts can be found at http://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/news/supreme-court-judgments and http://www.statecourts.gov.sg/Resources/Pages/Latest-Judgments.aspx respectively. Older decisions can be found on LawNet (https://www.lawnet.sg)